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GREAT HOME COOKS : Where in the World Is Curry O'Brien?

August 05, 1993|KATHIE JENKINS

Standing in Irene O'Brien's neat, U-shaped kitchen, you'd never know that she is in the middle of preparing a feast. There's not a dirty dish in sight. The only clue that something wonderful is going on is that the entire house is fragrant with garlic and curry, the scents of the Indian cuisine she loves to cook. "I clean up as I go along," explains O'Brien as she lifts the cover to taste the sauce that has been bubbling on the stove, pausing to adjust the seasonings.

Adding more chicken stock to the sauce, O'Brien grabs a wooden spoon and begins to stir. "My real satisfaction is in the cooking of, as opposed to the eating of food," she says. "Of course, I do nibble on the way. After all, you do have to taste what you're cooking."

"If there's a problem, Irene," her husband, John, says dryly, "I'll go down and pick up a couple of hamburgers."

Irene, a retired grade school teacher, became interested in Indian cuisine when she and her husband lived in Singapore for a year. While John was busy setting up an electronics plant, Irene occupied her time taking cooking classes. "That's where I met one of the Indian women who give cooking lessons in their homes," says O'Brien. "So I signed up for this Indian cuisine class and we became friends. I took some Chinese classes too."

Although O'Brien spent a lot of time in the kitchen while growing up in a small town in Massachusetts, she didn't do much solo cooking--she couldn't; she was surrounded by experts. There was her Polish grandmother and her mother; even her father was a deft cook. "I was always the sous chef at home," says O'Brien. "I peeled the apples and cracked the walnuts."

It wasn't until she got married that she really became interested in cooking. Of course, that was 40 years ago. Her taste is for basically simple, but spicy, garlicky recipes. "The smell is what turns me on," she says, "especially if it's got garlic in it."

She is also health-conscious. But she doesn't believe in substituting margarine for butter, or milk for heavy cream in recipes. "It just doesn't taste right," she says. "Besides, a little fat once in a while isn't going to hurt."

"We are not fanatics," adds John. "We're fin-and-feather kind of people."

While she occasionally prepares a few of the Polish dishes she grew up on, O'Brien still hasn't mastered pierogi, the light, meat dumplings her grandmother taught her to make. "The silly things just sink to the bottom of the pot," she says. "Some day I am going to learn."

Today, the O'Briens entertain at least once a week in their stylish, comfortable Westlake Village home. Often, dinner is served on "the porch," as their son, J.F., calls their landscaped patio, lush with exotic flowers, potted plants, succulents and moon-shaped stepping stones. Surprisingly, there's not a fruit tree in sight.

"I don't grow herbs or plant fruit trees," says O'Brien. "I know so many people who are inundated within a two-week period of time. They go absolutely crazy trying to fix the stuff, give it away, and having to be careful of not being attacked by bees. I just grow flowers."

Once a week she makes the rounds, shopping at the local markets. She buys cans of cannellini beans at a local gourmet grocery; grape leaves, garlic and pita bread at a Middle Eastern store. She gets garam masala and hot curry powder at an Indian market, and right next door is an Italian deli where O'Brien picks up mortadella and anchovies.

"I hate to start cooking and then discover I'm out of a chile or an onion," she says. "Although lately I've become somewhat lax. Now I make out menus only if we are going to have guests. And then I'll make everything I can ahead of time and freeze it." She even makes her own chicken broth because, simply, "it tastes a lot better."

O'Brien reads cookbooks the way other people devour novels. Her favorite--"The Asian Cookbook," by Charmaine Solomon--she picked up in Singapore. "Ethnic food," she says, "is very interesting, very healthy and very delicious."

Even when things go wrong--like the time she accidentally added two cans of chipotle chiles instead of two dried chiles--O'Brien doesn't panic. She was trying out a new chili recipe clipped from a newspaper. "For some reason," she says, "I kept thinking two cans, two cans." Irene simply added more tomatoes, made a huge pot of rice and served the chili as a topping. In the end it turned out fine, though some of her guests still found it a tad too hot. "There's no reason to feel intimidated," she says. "Everybody knows I experiment."

*

For years, this has been one of the O'Brien family's favorite recipes. The curry sauce makes eight cups but freezes well. For a quick dinner, O'Brien thaws some of the leftover sauce and serves it over lamb or chicken.

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